Debate over dirt could change the future of organics

November 18, 2016

Take away the dirt from an organic farming operation and is it possible for the fruits and veggies grown there still be considered organic? That is exactly the question raised in a recent article and facing the organic farming industry, as hydroponically grown foods, a water-based model of cultivation, want to be sold under the label "certified organic."

Some organic farmers and advocates are saying no — that the organic label should be rooted in soil, while a growing number of farmers raising fruits and vegetables in soil-free systems say their production methods are no different from those of farmers who grow plants in dirt, and argue they make organic farming more sustainable.

The National Organic Standards Board plans to decide on this matter very soon, and could not only redefine what it means to farm organically, but also greatly impact both small farms to global corporations in the current $40 billion-a-year organic industry.

“Soil to me as a farmer means a nutrient-rich medium that contains biological processes, and that doesn’t have to be dirt,” said Marianne Cufone, an aquaponic farmer and the executive director of the Recirculating Farms Coalition, which lobbies for aquaculture.

Not so, say the farmers who have spent years tending their soil so that it produces the nutrients plants need. They argue that organic production is first and foremost about caring for the soil, which produces environmental benefits that go beyond growing plants.

“Soil has always been the basis of organic production,” Steve Sprinkel, an organic farmer in Ojai, California said in the article. “The soil is alive and releasing micronutrients to plants that use their roots to scavenge and forage those things, and so taking care of the soil is the bedrock of organic farming.”

The demand in organics has sent grocers scrambling to find enough organic produce to fill their cases. Keeping up with the demand is difficult and expensive, and financiers and entrepreneurs, many of them from Silicon Valley, have started pouring money into these alternative systems.

Whether the soil-free systems help bring down the price of organic products remains to be seen, however. Equipment like lighting and organic nutrients are expensive, the article explains — soil growers count on their dirt to deliver some of those nutrients at no cost — and hydroponically and aquaponically grown fruits and vegetables usually are sold for the same price as organic produce grown in dirt.

“It’s like using an intravenous needle to administer exactly what we think the plant needs instead of allowing the plant to get what it needs in the amount it needs out of the ground,” said Dan Barber, a chef and author in New York.

In the end, the article explains the decision about whether these growing systems can continue to be certified falls to the United States Department of Agriculture. In 2010, the Organic Standards Board recommended that hydroponic systems be ruled ineligible for organic certification because they excluded “the soil-plant ecology intrinsic to organic farming systems.” At that time, there were only 39 hydroponic growers with organic certification.

The USDA has not acted on the board’s recommendation, allowing organic certification of crops grown in hydroponic systems to continue. According to a survey this year, the number of hydroponic growers with organic certification dropped to 30, but there were 22 certified aquaponic growers and 69 certified operations growing plants in containers lined with things like peat moss and coconut husks that do not provide nutrients on their own.

The Organic Foods Production Act of 1990 states: “An organic plan shall contain provisions designed to foster soil fertility, primarily through the management of the organic content of the soil through proper tillage, crop rotation and manuring.”

“To me, it seems simple and always has been,” Sam Welsch, chief executive of an organic certification business in Nebraska said in the article. He has refused to certify hydroponic produce and said, “There are things the law and regulations require you to do to the soil that you cannot do in a hydroponic system.”

For Colin Archipley, who grows kale, herbs and other produce hydroponically in greenhouses in San Diego, however, his frustration continues to grow as does his displeasure that there is even a debate over whether his produce is organic.

“The reason this has become such a big deal is that systems like ours are becoming more popular because they’re more efficient, which means farmers are more sustainable and profitable,” he said. “That’s put competition on farmers, specifically in Vermont, and so what this really is about is market protection.”

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Category: Agriculture, Food & Beverage